Rudolf Steiner and self-governance at the first Waldorf school

By Tomáš Zdražil, June 2022

At the end of 1918, a small initiative group of Stuttgart entrepreneurs led by Emil Molt decided to launch a campaign for social renewal. It met with Rudolf Steiner in Dornach at the end of January 1919 to prepare a concept for the project.

A free intellectual and cultural life and self-governance 

Steiner expressed himself very clearly at the meeting: "You would first have to found free schools with the money still available to teach people what they need." He emphasised the need for an education system that is independent of the state and the economy, from nursery to university. In numerous lectures, appeals and essays, the organising principle of a "free intellectual and cultural life" was set out in detail in the following months within the framework of the "threefolding campaign" in Baden-Württemberg.

"Free" for Steiner meant self-governed. The principle of self-governance appears as a constitutive guiding idea within the threefolding framework, without detailed elaboration and concrete proposals for implementation. Steiner sums up the idea of self-governance most succinctly in his text Die Kernpunkte der sozialen Frage (available in English as Towards Social Renewal):

"Within the structure of the state, the intellectual and cultural life has grown to freedom; it cannot live properly in this freedom if it is not given full self-governance. The intellectual and cultural life, by the nature it has assumed, demands that it should form a completely independent part of the social organism. The education and teaching system, from which all intellectual and cultural life grows, must be placed under the governance of those who educate and teach. Nothing that is active in the state or in the economy should interfere in this governance. Every teacher should spend only so much time on teaching that they can also be involved in the governance of their field. They will thereby take care of the governance in the same way as they take care of education and teaching itself. No one will give instructions who is not at the same time involved in living teaching and education. No parliament, no person who may have once taught but no longer does so themselves, has a say. What is experienced very directly in the classroom also flows into the governance." [1]

Against this background, it seems not insignificant that all the guests and potential teachers invited to the preparatory course for teachers were involved in the movement for social renewal or in the campaign for social threefolding.

The teachers' meeting as the central organ of self-governance

From the beginning, the weekly teachers' meeting was the most important organ of the self-governing management of the school. It served to talk about past and future school events, experiences and lessons, and to discuss new designs and plans. And it was the place where decisions were taken. At the same time, it served as an "continuing living college", as a "continuous seminar" [2] for further training, personal and human development and improvement. "Everyone should present to the other teachers what particularly concerns them, so that what the individual has worked on will benefit the others." [3]

The teachers' meeting is the crucial instrument of cooperative, democratically republican school governance. "Meetings are free republican discussions. Everyone is sovereign in them." [4] A school that is independent of the authority of the state and the church and committed to the principle of the free individual cannot accept a directorate, nor a superior hierarchy of officials, a system in which one person makes all the essential decisions. "This will only be achieved if everyone applies their full personality. [...] Therefore, we will not set up the school in a governmental way, but in an administrative way and manage it in a republican way. In a real teachers' republic, we will not have cushions at our back, decrees that come from the headmaster's office, but we must introduce that which [...] gives each of us full responsibility for what we have to do. Everyone must be fully responsible themselves." [5]

The unifying spirit of the Waldorf school

The involvement of all participants in the making of decisions naturally poses the risk of conflicts and raises the question of how the necessary unity of the school organism can be ensured. Especially where it is not just an informal exchange of views but where important decisions have to be made and common positions and actions have to be decided, it is about unity at a deeper layer: the level of the will of each participant. In this context, Rudolf Steiner counted on an intensive knowledge of anthroposophy among his colleagues. That is why an existential connection with anthroposophy was always a clear criterion in the selection of teacher candidates. He also understood the content of the teacher training course as something that could reach people right down to the region of their volitional decisions. "A substitute for a headmaster will be able to be created by setting up this preparatory course and taking in through the work here what gives the school its unity. We will acquire the unifying element through the course if we work quite seriously" [6]. As early as the spring of 1920, he spoke of the teachers' ongoing engagement with the texts of the course. [7] The joint work on the content gave the Waldorf school "the spirit" that unites. [8]

For Steiner, a prerequisite for the success of self-governance was the reciprocal perception of colleagues. Everyone should have the opportunity to describe what interested them intellectually, what they were occupied with scientifically or artistically. "... [I]t brings the whole college of teachers to life when a proper interest is taken in original work by the members of the college of teachers... This is actually the case, that spiritual forces which are in the college of teachers carry the college through the reciprocity of the inner scientific experience." [9] A culture of reciprocal interest, sympathetic listening and active dialogue was natural for him. The teachers' meeting thus becomes the concentrating "heart", the enlivening "soul" of the school through various elements. It promotes a spiritual community of teacher personalities, which makes complicated administrative structures unnecessary. It is about cultivating trust to and connection with each other.

The functions in school leadership: Rudolf Steiner – Emil Molt – Karl Stockmeyer

Of course the charismatic personality and authority of the educational school principal Rudolf Steiner was the integrating element in the early years. What he said was followed and implemented. In the first years of the school, he obviously worked towards practising the hitherto largely unknown principle of self-governance and cooperative school leadership under his guidance, so that the college of teachers could actually become more and more independent of his person. In the beginning, he single-handedly determined the members of the college of teachers. Later, the employment of the many new colleagues was regularly discussed in the college of teachers. Freedom in the design of the curriculum and teaching methods was also important to him. He called on the teachers: "I ask you to speak now, frankly and freely, what you think about this, everyone who has something to say. Even if someone has something to say that they think might be displeasing in the broadest sense, I ask that they also bring that matter forward." [10]

Especially in the early years, the school was able to rely on Karl Stockmeyer, who took the initiative and was extraordinarily conscientious in his management of the school. The words in one of Rudolf Steiner's lectures refer to him: "The question arose right at the beginning: who will be the director? – No one, of course; we just have equal teachers through all the classes, and one of those teachers who has a few less hours than the others, he handles the administrative things." [11] Stockmeyer made himself available for the practical and organisational side of founding the school: contact with the authorities and church representatives, timetables, organisation of substitutes, building work, furniture, teaching materials, issuing certificates, contact with and information for Steiner, organising his lectures and courses at the school and much more. Stockmeyer wrote about his understanding of school leadership:

"This, of course, gives a completely different meaning to what one would otherwise expect from a school principal. His task [...] can no longer be to bring about a certain homogeneity of teaching by imposing certain principles in a certain dictatorial way. But his task can only consist of being an administrative person and, what is of course more important, feeling responsible that all the things that approach the school primarily from the outside, the challenges, the risks, are taken up in an appropriate way, that they can be met in an appropriate way." [12]

It could be that the college of teachers did not properly perceive his role as the executive organ of the collegial will, as a result of which he slipped into a certain isolation which was interpreted by the college as high-handedness – a social configuration familiar to this day. The fact that the miracle of founding the school was organisationally successful and that the school survived in the economically most difficult years of 1922/23 was in any case thanks to Stockmeyer.

Thus the special task of the first Waldorf school was probably to settle into the self-governing form of leadership. The college of teachers was able to comprehend this unfamiliar form of "governance" through its commitment to Rudolf Steiner's leadership and to practise it in an extraordinarily strong feeling of responsibility for the success of the initiative as a "community of free spirits".

Literature: Steiner, R. (GA 23): Die Kernpunkte der sozialen Frage in den Lebensnotwendigkeiten der Gegenwart und Zukunft. Dornach 1976. Published in English as Towards Social Renewal. Forest Row 2000.| Steiner, R. (GA 293): Allgemeine Menschenkunde als Grundlage der Pädagogik. Dornach 1991. Published in English as The Foundations of Human Experience. Hudson 1996.| Steiner, R. (GA 300a-c): Konferenzen mit den Lehrern der Freien Waldorfschule 1919 bis 1924. Dornach 2019.| Steiner, R. (GA 301): Die Erneuerung der pädagogisch­didaktischen Kunst durch Geisteswissenschaft. Dornach 1991. Published in English as The Renewal of Education. Hudson 2002. | Steiner, R. (GA 307): Gegenwärtiges Geistesleben und Erziehung. Dornach 1991. Published in English as A Modern Art of Education. Hudson 1999. | Steiner, R. (GA 334): Vom Einheitsstaat zum dreigliedrigen sozialen Organismus. Dornach 1983. Published in English as Social Issues. Hudson 1994. | Steiner, R. (GA 339): Anthroposophie, soziale Dreigliederung und Redekunst. Dornach 1984. Published in English as The Art of Lecturing. Spring Valley 1994. | Stockmeyer, K.: Ansprache bei der Eröffnungsfeier der Freien Waldorfschule am 7.9. 1919. Unpublished. Rudolf Steiner Archive.

Author: Prof Dr. Tomáš Zdražil, born 1973, teaches at the Freie Hochschule Stuttgart – Seminar for Waldorf Pedagogy and is director of the von Tessin Centre for Health and Education. Author of the book Freie Waldorfschule Uhlandshöhe in Stuttgart. Rudolf Steiner – das Kollegium – die Pädagogik. Stuttgart 2019.  Contact: zdrazil@freie-hochschule-stuttgart.de

References: [1] Rudolf Steiner, GA 23, p. 10f. [2] Rudolf Steiner, GA 307, p. 241. [3] Rudolf Steiner, GA 300a, p. 47f. [4] Rudolf Steiner, GA 300a, p. 25. [5] Rudolf Steiner, GA 293, p. 14. [6] Rudolf Steiner, GA 293, p. 14. [7] Rudolf Steiner, GA 301, p. 64. [8] Rudolf Steiner, GA 339, p. 42. [9] Rudolf Steiner, GA 300b, p. 60. [10] Rudolf Steiner, GA 300b, p. 347. [11] Rudolf Steiner, GA 334, p. 163. [12] Stockmeyer on 7 September 1919, unpublished. 

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